By Rabbi Paul Freedman
It seems 2015 has started with our eyes directed heavenwards. Actually, those ‘eyes’ are in heaven but they have been looking even further out into space, to distant stars like our own sun.
The Kepler telescope was launched into space in 2009. It’s not orbiting the earth as so many communication and GPS satellites do; rather, it’s orbiting the sun along with us, following behind and sending ‘pictures’ once a month.
From its vantage point, it gets a much better view into space than we can down here. It can even detect planets orbiting distant stars, so-called exoplanets. Indeed, that is Kepler’s primary purpose and last week it spotted its thousandth exoplanet.
Twenty-five years ago, exoplanets were little more than science fiction. A proportion of known exoplanets are in the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ orbiting at the right distance from the star (not too hot, not too cold) for liquid water to exist and for the possibility of life. One of these planets, detected last week and somewhat unremarkably named Kepler 438b, has usurped Kepler 186f as the most likely habitable and earth-like planet discovered. Not that we will be visiting soon.
It’s four and a half thousand million kilometres away. It really is amazing that we can even see the star, let alone detect the flicker when the orbiting planet passes across our line of sight. Perhaps this reaching for the heavens reminds you of the story of the Tower of Babel? Not biblical bricks and bitumen, just newer technology in the same quest of extra-terrestrial exploration. Those biblical tower-builders, we are told, simply wanted to “make a name” for themselves, to usurp God. But I wonder if today’s scientific exploration is instead a holier collaboration.
There are undoubtedly enough problems here on earth that need our urgent attention, and sometimes the international scientific community might even help to solve them, but I also think that as we work together, ‘play’ together, in our human, scientific inquisitiveness, we might see ourselves humbly, with a modern-day reverence, as a small part of an awe-inspiring universe. Perhaps Kepler can give us a new perspective on ourselves.
• Paul Freedman is senior rabbi at Radlett Reform Synagogue and vice chairman of the Assembly of Reform Rabbis UK